What happens when you bring together a woman with Alzheimer's, a congresswoman, a policy expert and two doctors? No, this isn't a joke - but an intro to an informative and wide-ranging discussion on Alzheimer's disease and its effects on women.
"I was pretty ignorant until fairly recently," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who organized the forum Alzheimer's: A women's health issue held in San Mateo, Calif. yesterday. She also penned an opinion piece published recently in the San Francisco Chronicle. "I had no idea that two out of three people diagnosed with Alzheimer's are women."
Although it's the fifth leading cause of death in California, Alzheimer's receives much less federal money than many other major diseases, she said.
To spur conversation and provide information, Speier invited Cynthia Ortiz Guzman, a former nurse who suffers from Alzheimer's; Ruth Gay, director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer's Association; Elizabeth Landsverk, MD, medical director of ElderConsult, and Stanford's Michael Greicius, MD, MPH, an associate professor of neurology and neurology and medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders. Greicius has done research on women's risk of the disease.
Nearly all of the 150-plus people who attended the forum had a loved one who suffered from Alzheimer's. "We still have a good life, but there is so much that needs to be done," Guzman told them.
Greicius and Landsverk fielded questions about how to diagnose and treat Alzheimer's as well as promising directions of research.
At Stanford, Greicius said a person with memory impairment would meet with a neurologist, take a several hour neuropsychological exam, have bloods tests and a brain scan, and meet with social workers and nurses. He emphasized that this is far above the level of care available in more community medical centers. Sometimes physicians are able to find biomarkers that signal Alzheimer's presence more than a decade before symptoms appear he said.
Greicius urged attendees to find out if they're eligible for a neurological research trial at Stanford and to consider donating their brains and the brains of their loved ones to use for research. He also thanked Speier for focusing attention on Alzheimer's.
"We've got to get the attention of policymakers to address this issue," Speier said, adding that she might try to secure federal funds as part of the defense budget.
Gay, who recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the disease, agreed. "We know that today we need a game changer – we need people to step forward and speak out about this disease," she said.
Previously: Science Friday explores women's heightened risk for Alzheimer's, The state of Alzheimer's research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius and The toll of Alzheimer's on caretakers
Photo by Marjan Lazarevski